The Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:
TILL NOW I ALWAYS GOT BY ON MY OWN!
The Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:
This game is a prayer for a swift ending to all pandemics, present and future. Amen.
Paul Michael Winters gave us the perfect game for 2020, for better or worse.
Game Type: Inform (Glulx)
Author Info: Paul Michael Winters is a new, emerging IF author with an uncertain background and biography and an apparently limited web presence. One of his games is on itch.io if you’re into that sort of thing.
Other Games By This Author: The House on Sycamore Lane, The Long Nap
“Hope.” That’s the closing line of this game if you get the good ending. I don’t think I’m really spoiling anything by mentioning that here, but that line struck me as the absolute perfect way to end what is a rather grim work about a deadly disease. In 2020 and so far in 2021, hope is exactly what the world has been trying desperately to hold on to as millions have died, tens of millions have been infected, public squares and businesses have been and continue to be closed, and vaccine rollouts have been botched to varying degrees. I’m not sure I personally would have chosen to write a game about a devastating illness in 2020, but I think I understand why Paul Michael Winters made that difficult choice. Alone is art that captures the spirit of the times. It is a mirror that reflects back on us the fear, the desperation, and the uncertainty of the pandemic. As you might expect, it’s not a very pleasant picture for the most part.
When I first played this game, I immediately saw some of its promise, but I set it aside for a couple of months before actually finishing it. Part of me just didn’t want to keep playing a game that uncomfortably reminded me of real life. After all, IF is something that can offer an excellent escape from overbearing reality. I appreciated each and every 2020 IFComp game I played which didn’t make me think about Covid-19 or other current events. Yet IF also has a role it can play in illuminating reality and making us face difficult issues. This probably isn’t the right thing to play if you just attended Grandpa’s funeral via Zoom or have been up all night worrying about why you seem to have all the symptoms…and I do mean ALL of them. If you’re in the right frame of mind to appreciate it, however, Alone can be powerful and resonate strongly. Winters wrote a game which has a bigger emotional impact in 2020 than it would have had any previous non-pandemic year. In 2019, my short review of this game would probably have gone something like, “Haha, deadly pandemic game! Fun fun!” No one’s writing that review in 2020 or 2021. We’re just too close to it to consider the premise dispassionately or mockingly. My review of Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the Atari 2600 wouldn’t have gone, “Haha, chopping up kids game! Fun fun fun!” if thousands of kids were actually being murdered with chainsaws in 1983. (In retrospect, that probably still wasn’t the most socially responsible review I’ve ever written even though chainsaw murders were at a 30 year low at the time.) The topicality of the subject matter combined with Winters’ grim and serious tone commands our attention. It doesn’t feel like just a game. It could be a glimpse of a possible future…perhaps even tomorrow’s reality, unfortunately.
The pandemic in the game is probably even worse than what we’re facing in the real world. It is causing people to drop dead in the streets (and elsewhere) after developing horrific symptoms including black veins in the neck and temporary insanity. Our protagonist — hell, I’ll say it, OUR HERO — is staying alive in a most desperate and daring fashion. Rather than social distancing at home and waiting for inevitable death, he’s taken to the road. He drives aimlessly through a now eerily empty countryside, only stopping when he must to collect gas and other vital supplies. This might not seem like the most Fauci-approved survival strategy, but these are exceptionally bad times. We can safely surmise the main character didn’t feel safe at home. Maybe supplies were dwindling. Maybe there were riots. Maybe Uncle Jim got infected, and you know that guy’s a hugger. Death Ride 2020 isn’t anyone’s first choice for a pandemic lifestyle. Our dude has found a way to survive, but it’s wearing on him and doesn’t seem sustainable. Everything comes to a head when he runs out of gas and must venture out on foot into the darkness. There’s a gas station nearby, but we pretty much know already that it’s not going to be that easy. Not at all.
Paul Michael Winters uses a very spare, austere writing style through much of the game. Alone largely packs its storytelling punch into the introduction and ending sections of the game. The intro is terrific and immediately made me identify with the main character, that lonely, exhausted figure who cannot stop driving ever onwards into the dark and gloomy night. The ending — well, the best ending anyway — provides a satisfying, life-affirming conclusion that makes the journey seem totally worthwhile in the end. It’s the journey itself that tested my motivation to finish at times. When you’re in the puzzle solving and obstacle removing portion of the game (which is the bulk of it), you won’t be getting much exposition or description. The minimalistic style of the writing fits the somber, lonely narrative, but I had questions about the disease and the state of the world I was hoping would be answered as I progressed through the game that weren’t. Part of the problem is my unreasonable expectation that my reward for solving puzzles in a text adventure should be more exposition. Not all games work like that. This game demands some patience and the recognition that answers aren’t always readily available when a pandemic is ravaging the world. There is some background information provided in written materials you find scattered around, but it’s quite limited in scope. The main character seems to know more about the disease than we do, but perhaps not much more. He isn’t investigating the disease’s origin or trying to cure the world — he’s just trying to survive, and that’s quite hard enough under the circumstances.
I know nothing concrete about Paul Michael Winters or his wintery ways, but in my mind he’s a young IF author who is still honing his craft. If it turns out he’s actually 63 and an old hand at text games, then my bad…though I will say that’s still fairly young by IF standards. If you were to play his first game (reviewed by Flack here) and then this one immediately after, it would be obvious to you that he’s improving and growing as an author and a developer. Maybe that alone doesn’t definitively prove the Young Winters Theory, but it does show PMW is pretty serious about this whole IF thing. He clearly put some extra time in for testing and polishing this time around. For the most part, this is a game that just works. It’s a triumph of implementation in its own way. Considering the number of objects you must use to get past a variety of electrical, electronic, and mechanical obstacles, there’s a lot that could’ve potentially gone wrong here that didn’t. As a player, it’s a relief to be able to encounter a gate or a control panel in the game and know it’s going to work as you would expect if you’ve got the right items in tow. I’ve been replaying Vampire: the Masquerade — Bloodlines recently so when I saw an air duct in this game I was both overjoyed and extremely eager to get inside. One of the major differences between video games and real life for me personally is that I’d essentially never voluntarily enter a air duct in real life but I’ll pretty much never pass up a chance for some quality ductin’ time in a video game. As it turns out, the air duct turned out to be totally serviceable though very small. A lot of air ducts have those two qualities, I imagine. The important thing is it worked. Good ductin’, man, good ductin’! The one object I found somewhat fiddly to work with was the drug synthesis machine. Nothing major — it’s just somewhat awkward to use and I blame it for getting me killed when I forgot to do something stupid. In summation, air ducts rule and life-saving, drug-dispensing wondermachines suck.
The worst parsers try to fight you on everything. Even something as simple as going south or opening a door can be an ordeal, let alone a more complex action like entering an air duct to get some good ductin’. The best parsers understand pretty much everything reasonable you throw at them. It’s like the author knew exactly what you were going to type before you typed it! I swear there’s a line in Deadline Marc Blank threw in just for me to find during my fourth playthrough. The parser in Alone is somewhere in between those two extremes. I generally found that if my first attempt at wording a command didn’t work the second would, but your mileage may vary. There are definitely verbs that should’ve been implemented that weren’t. Have you ever noticed that it’s generally the verbs you don’t implement that you find yourself missing the most? On the other hand, the game understood some complex commands I almost didn’t expect it to. I fully expect PMW to keep the cycle of improvement going and for his next game to be even better than this one so I’m sure he’ll focus more on the parser next time. There’ll be more verbs, more synonyms, more accepted alternatives, and hopefully more air ducts. The parser doesn’t ruin this game by any means, but it may test your patience at times.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Alone is the moral choice you must make towards the end of the game. It’s so cleverly implemented that you might never even recognize it as a moral choice or even feel like you have a choice, but it absolutely is. You can “win” the game either way and feel like you did what you needed to do, but one ending is much, much more satisfying than the other. I strongly recommend playing it at least twice so you can see both endings. You’ll actually probably end up playing it three times because xyzzy kills you. The only things I hate more than life-saving, drug-dispensing wondermachines are death-bringing xyzzy implementations, but the game is still good and very much worth playing.
Simple Rating: 7/10
Writing: 7/10 (I’d give it an 8 at its best and a 5 or 6 through most of the game. So somehow it ended up being a 7!)
Puzzle Quality: 8/10 (I’m counting the moral choice as a puzzle with multiple solutions. The other puzzles are generally good as well.)
Parser Responsiveness: 6/10